Yellowstone River Spill Shows Dangers of Keystone XL Pipeline

NOTE: This is a guest post from Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, Director of International Program for NRDC in Washington D.C.

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Once again this weekend, we saw a clear example of how water and oil don’t mix when an Exxon oil pipeline spewed around 40,000 gallons into the wild Yellowstone River in Montana. The mess is likely a wakeup call for officials in Montana. And is yet another reminder for pipeline regulators around the country that we have a problem. It’s been a bad year with spills in Michigan, some big messes in Canada, spills all along first Keystone tar sands oil pipeline in the Great Plains, a spill in downtown Salt Lake City and now in the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states. As these spills take a toll on American waters, landscapes, and communities, I wonder when we will get focused on fixing our faulty infrastructure to stop these messes — and if we can afford to build another mega-pipeline across our most sensitive water resources without fixing the problem.

Montana’s Governor Schweitzer is rightly focused on making sure the cleanup of this spill happens quickly and thoroughly. As a next step Montana should also be questioning the safety of proposed new pipelines such as TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that would also cross the wild Yellowstone River. Tar sands oil from Canada is more corrosive, more prone to spills, and more difficult to clean up than conventional oil. The Exxon oil pipeline spill is another indicator that we should not be transporting even more dangerous and dirty tar sands oil endangering our precious rivers, agricultural lands, communities and wildlife.

The ExxonMobil pipeline that runs under the Yellowstone River in south central Montana broke late Friday night just west of Billings. The river is running fast and high full of snow melt from the Rockies. Despite the work of cleanup crews, it is feared that oil has traveled far downstream in a region critical for irrigation and important as fish and bird habitat. The Yellowstone River runs into the Missouri River meaning that an oil spill in the Yellowstone can have a wide-reaching impact. News reports show pelicans and turtles that have been oiled. The lower Yellowstone River is home to the rarest and largest freshwater fish in North America — the pallid sturgeon — and is also home to the endangered Least Tern.

As we saw from the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf, toxins in the oil can take a lethal toll on aquatic life of all kinds. Exposure to these toxins can also cause genetic damage, liver disease, cancer and harm to reproductive and immune systems. Clean up can take a long time. For example, almost at the one year anniversary of a spill of 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, clean-up efforts are still underway. The full extent of the damage usually takes years to unfold. The herring population collapsed in Prince William Sound, for example, three years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

We don’t yet know the extent of the damage from this oil spill – or what it will mean for the people and wildlife that depend on the river system. What we do know is that this type of pipeline spill is not acceptable. Exxon says that the oil is dissipating. I worry that means that Exxon is not able to capture the oil to clean it up with the river running so high and fast. In the same way, TransCanada has characterized the 12 tar sands oil spills in just the first year of its Keystone One pipeline as “business as usual.” Surely, this is not a time to be granting a permit to an even more likely to leak pipeline such as the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to cross the Yellowstone River in Montana. This is a time to be re-examining our pipeline safety regulations and assessing the safety risks of new proposed pipelines such as TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline that would carry even more corrosive, likely to spill and difficult to clean up substances such as tar sands from Canada.

To take action, send a letter to Secretary of State Clinton to say no to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.


W. C
W. C5 months ago

Thanks for caring.

William C
William C5 months ago

Thank you for the information.

Laurie H.
Laurie H6 years ago

Thanks for this post-signed and hope they heed the warning.~

Eternal Gardener
Eternal G6 years ago


Grace Adams
Grace Adams6 years ago

We need to replace fossil fuel with sustainable energy even more than we need to get our corporate leaders to lighten up and let the bottom 95% of the population economically speaking have enough to live on. We need both--but the need for sustainable energy is even more urgent. I could see giving our corporate leaders as near a monopoly on sustainable energy as they have now on fossil fuel legally mandated, in exchange for contracts for them to make the transition with commitment to a schedule.

Adrianne P.
A P6 years ago

Anyone who has doubts as to how detrimental fracking is to the environment and people, take a drive up in rural northern Pennsylvania. Watch Gasland, too.

A T.
Allena Tyrrell6 years ago

Hi HowRU2day?
Yeah, looks unsightly, but not as bad as BP anyway you didn't know that bees could pee, worse than this, all over the place. How about the folks who live nearby? Montana does not sound a rich state, either, with the unmade roads, and education cuts, people on welfare. So wot if they vote Republican, let them, here in the UK that means Conservative, but they are not into conservationists of the environment either. Furthermore republican means a radical party here, which it doesn't over your way. Only a fascist or nazi state wants to abolish political parties. Yes thats true, we are sitting here, in front of our comuter computers, driving about in motor cars, all turning the juice loose moose.
I am on this site, to find out what is going on in the world.

Yours Allena T

Ronald N.
Ronald N6 years ago

Those who blame "Americans" in such a context is naive. The real problem is the corporate stranglehold and the fact that it is impossible to change immediately. However, the truth is these corporations throw out their PR in a false attempt to sway the public that they are trying. They aren't ! Too little is allocated into alternative energy. Then, there is the profitization motive. There is no profit if the corporates decide to find a system that provides sustainable energy that can be made cheaply! Then, there is the motive of subsidized unrenewable energy. That keeps the public buying at a rate that exceeds the ability to pay and afford unsustainable energy. Of course the media is paid handsomely for throwing out this garbage for the public to swallow and the corporates make out like bandits.

Hegemony and wars are part of the "big picture" in the continuing saga of keeping the United States into a war status. What would become of our "military industrial, corporate, governmental complex." If we went towards a more enlightened way of creating energy. We would lose an ellitist system were wealth goes toward the few and there would be far less economic slaves. All things have a purpose and if discontent prevails in this "New World Order" the big shots are doing their jobs right! They are serving themselves and we are the luckless consumers who think this is the right way.

Tim Cheung
Tim C6 years ago


Alice H.
Alice H6 years ago

Mining and cleaning the Alberta tar sands is energy intensive and C02 production intensive. Mining them is creating a wasteland. Native people in the region are experiencing heightened rates of cancers and animal species are endangered.

We do not want to encourage this mining, nor do we want to pipe this stuff over/through our most important aquifer.